Learning the Mockingbird’s Song

Opus the Penguin told us this would happen.

Back in 1994, the miniseries “Scarlett” was about to hit the airwaves, based on the why’d-they-do-it sequel to “Gone With The Wind.” About a month before it aired, Opus discovered in his comic-strip world that another American classic was getting a second chapter as well, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.

The name of this deathless piece of Hollywood literature? “Kill Mo’ Mockingbird: Boo Radley Loose in the ‘Hood.”

Well, we never got to see Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch and Dennis Hopper as a heavily-armed Boo. But from the recent ripples in the book world, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

In case you missed it, the much-loved Harper Lee returned to the bookshelves this week with a long-unpublished manuscript: “Go Set A Watchman.” Seen through the eyes of an adult Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, the book features numerous changes to the familiar world of “To Kill A Mockingbird” – not least, Scout’s discovery of the racist attitudes of her father, Atticus Finch.

That caused a bit of an earthquake, and understandably so. After all, “Mockingbird” fans are a devoted crew and Atticus is one of the most adored literary creations ever. Turning him into a segregationist is almost on an order with carving the Golden Arches on Mount Everest – so unthinkable as to be almost obscene.

And yet, that’s not quite right.

Before deciding to avoid the new book forever – and plenty of fans have declared their intention to do just that – consider this. “Watchman” was written first. It’s not a sequel. It’s an early attempt, written and then abandoned when Lee decided to approach the story of Scout and Atticus from a different time and perspective, the one that has endured for decades.

In short, it’s a first draft.

Many things can happen in a first draft.

Some regular readers may recall that I’m a longtime fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Several years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher wrote a series of books about his father’s creation of Middle-Earth, including the evolution of “The Lord of the Rings.”

The early drafts featured a hero named Bingo Baggins. Treebeard appears as a villainous giant rather than a mighty forest-guardian. And while there’s no sign of the courageous Strider, the reader is treated to a Hobbit ranger known as Trotter, running around the countryside in wooden shoes.

There are false starts. Uncertain tones. Details of the world that seem almost ludicrous compared to the epic we’ve come to know and love.

But to read it is utterly fascinating. Even illuminating. And my appreciation of the Middle-Earth that finally came to be is all the richer for it.

Very few works of art come to life fully-formed. They’re born in struggle and frustration, with all the ungainliness of a toddler learning to walk or a teenager growing into their body. The results aren’t often pretty and many of the early efforts are often well-abandoned.

But without those efforts, the final beauty could never be.

That’s encouraging, not just as a reader, but as a writer – or, indeed, a creator of any kind. It means you don’t have to be perfect from the start. It means you can find your voice, make bad choices, create pieces that fall to earth with a “clunk.”

It means you can learn. You can grow. You can master the skill that no one else can: the skill of your voice, your vision.

And that’s when the mockingbirds fly.

So when you read “Watchman,” read it in that spirit. This isn’t a second verse to an old song. It’s a map of roads not taken, the earliest sketches before the final canvas.

Come to it with those eyes. And you may just love Atticus – the one and only Atticus – more than ever before.

To Say the Least

“Ma shoe.”

Missy had just finished her bath and gotten into pajamas. She pointed a small finger at her blue sneakers as she had done on many nights, sometimes just to point out they were there, sometimes to ask to put them on or get them out of the way.

“Ma shoe.”

Pause.

“Ma tennis shoe.”

I blinked.

OK. That was new.

In fact, for Missy, that was practically grand oratory.

If you’ve read this column regularly, you’ve probably started to get a feel for Missy, my wife Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. She is, to say the least, a lady of personality, capable of being roused to high excitement at the prospect of bowling or dancing or even having a bite of peanut butter pie.

But she’s not a woman of many words. Not normally, anyway. People who meet Missy for the first time are sometimes surprised that she speaks at all; those that hang around her longer get used to hearing some of her more common phrases such as “I wanna eat the food” or “I wan’ my book” – the latter of which can mean “book” or “purse.” Many times, her exact meaning has to be decoded from her face, her gestures and a carefully chosen vocabulary.

But lately, that vocabulary seems to be growing.

After a weekly trip to the therapy pool, Missy proudly told Heather that she had been “swimming.”

My own title, which has mostly been “He” or “Frank” (her father’s name) for three years is now sometimes “Scott.” Or even “Dad,” to my startled surprise.

And when our biggest dog started pestering her for food, Missy doubled us all over with laughter with a hearty “Gonamit, Blake!”

A well-chosen word can do that. And Missy has more choices than she used to.

That’s heartening for a lot of reasons.

We’ve never been quite sure what goes on inside Missy’s mind. The incident that caused her brain damage happened in infancy, and even now, I often describe her as “sometimes 4, sometimes 14 and sometimes 40,” based on the various ways she interacts with the world. Her occasional words are a part of that, sometimes reflexive, sometimes hinting at much more going on behind those mischievous green eyes.

In electronics terms, it’s a question of whether the computer itself is damaged – or just the printer and monitor. How much does she understand? How often does she know exactly what’s going on, without being able to express it?

I’ve often suspected the latter, especially since in moments of high excitement, she seems to bypass whatever’s blocking her communication and express herself. (Her question of “Where’s Gandalf?” during a tense moment in “The Hobbit” is now one of our most retold examples.) Every time she adds another word or phrase, another building block, she reinforces that.

More than that. She reinforces my own hope. Missy and I are the same age – so if she can keep learning and growing, so can I.

So can any of us.

Did I say Missy’s words could be reflexive sometimes? Thinking back, that’s true of most of us. We get locked into patterns of speech, of behavior, of life. After a while, it’s easy to stop noticing our surroundings and just fly on autopilot.

Shaking that up can be the healthiest thing in the world. It might be a big trip across the country or just walking instead of driving through the neighborhood. Anything that makes you put on new eyes.

Heather’s joked that in Missy’s case, she suddenly found herself with two guardians who wouldn’t shut up. There may be some truth to that. Certainly, we’ve often talked to her, with her and around her. Maybe her own words started to come in self-defense.

Whatever the reason, it’s happening. And it’s exciting, as new lessons often are. I can’t wait to see what the next bend in the road will reveal.

Wherever it leads, Missy has her shoes ready.

Her tennis shoes.

The Book Twice Traveled

Missy leaned in slightly as Harry Potter counted down the seconds to his 11th birthday.

“Maybe he’d wake Dudley up just to annoy him,” I read from the side of her mattress. “Three … two … one … BOOM!”

At the sudden noise, she jumped in bed. Then Missy giggled and I laughed. Her eyes came alive as she twitched with eagerness and delight. Something good was coming, she knew it.

She ought to. After all, we’d been down this road before.

Regular readers will remember that I read every night to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt. Attentive readers will remember that we made the journey through all seven Harry Potter books about two years ago. Since then, our travels have taken us to Tom Sawyer and Percy Jackson, to Peter Pan and Homer Price, to secret gardens and yellow brick roads. Every path led to a new horizon, new places to go and faces to meet.

It’s been a delight, our special time of magic and discovery. But … well … some kinds of magic are too good to only experience once.

Missy certainly thinks so.

Granted, Missy is a woman of strong habits. The familiar doesn’t seem to get old for her. She can spend an hour taking apart and putting together the same puzzle, or carefully arranging photographs in a Ziploc bag, then taking them out to do it all again.

Even so, when I offered her the chance to pick out our next book – on a whim, showing a mix of old titles and new —  she pointed at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with a certain … forcefulness. Energy. Even glee.

I quickly understood. After all, I’m a veteran of the road twice traveled myself.

I’ve had people wonder at that sometimes. “How can you read a book so many times? Don’t you get tired of it?” To me, the sentence might as well be in Martian. After all, do you get tired of a friend who visits more than once?

And that’s what certain books are to me. Old friends. Not arranged like bookends, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, but between them, always ready for another call.

It’s not easy to explain to someone who doesn’t share the passion. So many things are wrapped up in it.

There’s the memories that a certain passage will evoke. When I go back through The Hobbit and reach the death of Thorin Oakenshield, the reference to the Dwarf’s rent armor always evokes Dad’s voice, explaining to an 8-year-old boy that “rent” meant the mail was torn or damaged.

There’s the anticipation that comes with a second trip, the ability to watch for details you missed the first time or realize just how early a seed was planted. Walking through Murder on the Orient Express or The Time Traveler’s Wife, I can see the pieces of plot assemble themselves, waiting for their moment on stage. Resuming the Harry Potter books, I can see Hagrid arrive on the motorcycle of Sirius Black and know who Sirius is and what heartache is about to be set in motion.

And of course, there’s the tales themselves. If I revisit a story, it’s because it’s worth spending time with. Often, it means a particular scene can still make me laugh, or wince, or start to tear up. That it can come alive like it’s happening for the first time again. Maybe this time the message will reach Romeo. Maybe this time, Sam won’t accuse Gollum. And will the Stone Table still break at the Lion’s coming?

That’s powerful.

It takes something special to reach that point, to have a story become a treasured memory. And like the best memories, re-examining them brings together who you were and who you are into a single, timeless moment.

And if it leads to a giggle in the night with a loved one  – well, that’s a bonus.

Even if it does lead to a Harry situation.